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As the Internet Replaces Print Publishing, Urge to 'Unpublish' Means Censoring History

The Internet has opened up the past and made it fungible with a few keystrokes. The offended know it's physically easy to change a story online.

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As so-called cloud computing becomes more common, consolidating lots of -- and perhaps someday most -- data in servers physically removed from users, the ability to make quick and global changes grows with it. Web-based software -- think Hotmail or Gmail -- is already allowing quick, and welcome, updates for all users simultaneously without tapping their personal hard drives. Once much archival material and almost all new materials starts living online exclusively, the ability to amend that cloud by the cloud-keepers becomes less fantastic.

But direct governmental control of information is not the biggest threat in the digital age, at least in this country, said Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group with 220 members, primarily libraries and universities. Rather, it's the "low-key, haphazard deterioration of the record" that's alarming, he said.

"I don't imagine the centralized attack that you see in Orwell," Lynch said. "It's very hard to see us getting to the stage where there's a government department in charge of rewriting history. It's more that there are thousands of small players who can chip away at things, people who can litigate or write in to a paper and get themselves removed, or somebody who had a prominent presence on Web and then dies, and the Web site vanishes."

So the future is less 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, and more "99 bottles of beer on the wall."

Will the past last?
At Columbia University, a team of seven people, including two full-time librarians, has recently founded the Human Rights Web Archive to preserve Web sites that are providing valuable information on struggles for democracy in other countries. Many of these sites are being hacked, suspended or shut down by repressive regimes.

"This is the early days yet," said Bob Wolven, an associate librarian at Columbia. "The basic concern is with information on the Web that is freely available but fragile and might disappear. We're still working things out. We're starting with human rights, drawing on the expertise of librarians and scholars. Knowing what's there is a big part of the challenge."

Preservation is not cheap. Columbia's effort is funded by a three-year, $716,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Print collections in libraries can weather a few years of budget austerity, scholars say, but a few lean years could cause large portions of the electronic record to disappear.

Twenty-one complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible are still in existence today after more than 500 years. The Dead Sea Scrolls (which are going online) survived more than two millennia. How long will electronic books survive?

"We kind of wonder what's going to happen to them, 20 years from now," said Oya Y. Rieger, who oversees digital technologies at Cornell University Library. Cornell is digitizing 15,000 books monthly in partnership with Google.

"Fifty years from now, Cornell will still probably have the print originals," Rieger said. "There are many initiatives creating technical infrastructures to ensure that digital books will still be available, but they are untested. I'm afraid some of it will be defined by time."

In the past, there were multiple print copies of journals on the shelves of multiple university libraries. Today, schools are saving money by canceling journals in print and subscribing exclusively online. In many cases, the journals are "born-digital."

On Feb. 26, Princeton is hosting a conference titled, "Is there a past in your future?" to discuss how to preserve scholarly journals that are no longer stored by universities, either in print or online.

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